Our personal level of happiness and generosity appears to depend on how we feel about others’ fortunes in comparison to our own, according to a new study at the University College London (UCL) in which researchers developed an equation to predict happiness levels.
The findings show that, on average, inequality tends to reduce happiness levels. For the most part, people tend to feel happier when they win the same amount as their partner (not less and not more).
But when the winnings are not equal, there is great variability in each person’s levels of happiness. For some, happiness levels are reduced when they have less than others (perhaps from envy, suggest the researchers), but for others, happiness levels are reduced when they have more than others (perhaps from guilt). This variability in happiness can accurately predict future generosity.
In the first experiment, participants who played a gambling game were able to see whether or not their partner won at the same game. On average, when a participant won some money, they were happier when their partner also won the same money compared to when their partner lost. Similarly, when people lost a game, they were happier when their partner also lost compared to when their partner won.
“Our equation can predict exactly how happy people will be based not only on what happens to them but also what happens to the people around them,” said one of the study’s co-lead authors, Dr. Robb Rutledge (UCL Institute of Neurology and Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Aging Research).
“On average we are less happy if others get more or less than us, but this varies a lot from person to person. Interestingly, the equation allows us to predict how generous an individual will be in a separate scenario when they are asked how they would like to split a small amount of money with another person. Based on exactly how inequality affects their happiness, we can predict which individuals will be altruistic.”
For example, people who feel less happy when they have more than their neighbor are more likely to be generous with their own money, while those who feel envious when others have more are less likely to be generous.
“Our results suggest that generosity towards strangers relates to how our happiness is affected by the inequalities we experience in our daily life,” said study co-leader and graduate student Archy de Berker at the UCL Institute of Neurology.
“The people who gave away half of their money when they had the opportunity showed no envy when they experienced inequality in a different task but showed a lot of guilt. By contrast, those who kept all the money for themselves displayed no signs of guilt in the other task but displayed a lot of envy.”
For the experiment in generosity, 47 participants who did not know each other completed several tasks in small groups. In one task, they were asked how they would like to anonymously split a small amount of money with another person that they had just met.
In another task, they played a gambling game in which they could win or lose money. They were told that they would be able to see what another person received from the same game. In this way, participants could win the same or different amount as their partner, sometimes getting more and sometimes getting less. Throughout this experiment, participants were asked how happy they felt at regular intervals.
On average, participants who felt less happy about getting more than their partners gave away 30 percent of the money. On the other hand, participants who felt the least happy about getting less than others gave only 10 percent.
The participants’ generosity was not dependent on who the partner was or which partner they said they preferred. This suggests that people were acting according to stable personality traits rather than specific feelings about the other player.
“This is the first time that people’s generosity has been directly linked to how inequality affects their happiness. Economists have had difficulty explaining why some people are more generous than others, and our experiments offers an explanation,” said de Berke.
“The task may prove to be a useful way of measuring empathy, which could offer insight into social disorders such as borderline personality disorder. Such methods could help us better understand certain aspects of social disorders, such as indifference to the suffering of others.”
The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.